Monday, November 9, 2009

Guest Blogger Myra Johnson on "What If?": Creating Fiction from Real Life

I’m delighted about the recent release of my first Heartsong Presents novel, Autumn Rains. This story holds special meaning for me because the hero, Healy Ferguson, was inspired by a true story told to me by my brother-in-law, who at the time was pastor of our church in Houston, Texas.

A man who had just been released from prison came through town on his way to follow up on a job opportunity. During his layover at the Greyhound bus station downtown, he stowed all his things in a locker (back when bus stations still had lockers) and then lost the combination! He’d have to pay a sizable fee in order to retrieve his things, but since most of his money was also in that locker, he had no idea what to do. He asked where he might find assistance, and someone suggested he try one of the churches in our neighborhood.

So the man set out, sometimes hitchhiking but mostly walking the 25-30 miles in blistering summer heat. By late evening he arrived at our church, where my pastor/brother-in-law and a church council member were concluding a meeting. They gave him enough cash to tide him over and drove him to where he could catch a commuter bus back to the Greyhound terminal. On the way, they nonchalantly asked what the man’s crime was, and when he said murder, they got a wee bit nervous. But the story had a happy ending, because we later learned the man had reached his destination, found a good job, and began a new life.

That story stayed with me long after my brother-in-law related it, and I knew somehow I had to work it into a novel. But how to turn an ex-con convicted of a serious crime into the hero of an inspirational romance? Naturally I resorted to the novelist’s familiar “what if” game. What if one friend on the outside refused to give up on the man and helped him find forgiveness in Christ? What if he and his friend later lost touch? What if his first goal when getting out of prison is to find that friend? What if, instead, he finds himself falling hopelessly in love with the friend’s widow?

As Healy became more and more real in my mind, various plot ideas began to germinate. Truth may be stranger than fiction, as the old saying goes, but a novel must be even more “true” than real life. Characterizations and plot elements must work together so that the story makes sense in ways real life often doesn’t. Once I settled on the central theme for Autumn Rains—“There are many kinds of prisons”—I knew I’d need a heroine whose struggle somehow mirrored Healy’s.

For Valerie, my “what if” questions naturally turned toward other ways people can be imprisoned. What if a woman’s fears have made her a prisoner in her own home? What if a personal tragedy makes her wonder if she’ll ever know real love again? What if her encounter with Healy has the potential either to drive her deeper into isolation or finally bring healing to them both?

The resulting novel is one I’m especially proud of, partly because it isn’t your usual boy-meets-girl romance, but a story of how love redeems not one life but two. I’ll always be grateful to everyone at Barbour—especially JoAnne—for making the publication of this book a reality!

Are there real-life individuals or situations that just won’t let go of your imagination? What deeper truths are they telling you? Play the “what if” game and see where it takes you!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, Myra. It's great to see how a real-life story can be expanded into gripping fiction.

My husband related a true-life tale to me yesterday and the first thing I said was, "I can write about that." Reading your account has inspired me even more.

Congratulations on publishing Autumn Rains! I'm looking forward to reading it.

carla stewart said...

Great insights, Myra, especially about turning real life incidents into redeeming fiction.

I just finished AUTUMN RAINS - lovely book. Congrats to you and the HS team!

Debra E Marvin said...

Myra what a story. Wow!
No wonder you couldn't let it go.
I imagine your book will touch a lot of lives! Congratulations on your new Heartsong.

Janet Dean said...

Your story intrigues me, Myra. Talk about a great hook! I'll have to get a copy of Autumn Rains.

Since I write inspirational historical romances, I often find "what ifs" from nuggets in our nation's past. My February novel is a mail-order bride story. Can you imagine what it would be like to marry a stranger?


Vickie McDonough said...


Your books sounds very interesting and different. Can't wait to read it. Congratulations on your first book with Barbour!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Loved the story behind your story, Myra.


PatriciaW said...

Great story about creating great story. Thanks for the insights, Myra. Another book on my TBR list.

Myra Johnson said...

Thanks, everyone! Sometimes the hardest part about turning real life into fiction is that we get too attached to what we know really happened and it's hard to break away and let our fiction writer's imagination take over. Probably it's a good thing I never knew all that much about the ex-con who inspired Healy. This way, I was able to create a character with the particular traits that I felt would endear him to readers.

Mary Connealy said...

Myra, I read a few chapters of this a long time ago and I've ALWAYS wanted to see what happened. I got it in the mail TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Myra Johnson said...

Now calm down, Mary. We don't want you scaring people.

Pepper Basham said...

What an inspirational story. It sounds wonderful and I can't wait to read it.
God's grace is so much 'bigger' than our sin, isn't it?

Wonderful post and I love the idea of 'what if?". It creates characters and amazing twists in plots too.

Thanks for sharing.

Erica Vetsch said...

yay! I just finished reading Autumn Rains last week, and it's terrific. Thank you, Myra!

Mary Connealy said...

I read Autumn Rain last night, Myra. So wonderful and thank you for sending it.

I've been chomping at the bit for this month's Heartsong box because your book AND Erica's is in it.
As well as one from Cara Putman and the team of Melby and Weinke.
Should be a great month.